Head to CNN for live coverage from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday afternoon. Space correspondent Kristin Fisher will provide us with moment-by-moment coverage of the launch, along with a team of experts.
The Space Launch System rocket and Orion spacecraft will lift off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Saturday between 2:17 PM and 4:17 PM ET.
Although there is no crew on board, the mission is the first step of the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the moon and eventually land them on Mars.
There is a 60% chance of favorable weather for launch, with chances increasing to 80% favorable by the end of the window, weather officer Melody Lovin said at a news conference Friday morning.
If the rocket fails to launch on Saturday, the next possible launch window is Monday.
Once launched, the Orion spacecraft will enter a distant retrograde orbit of the moon and travel 40,000 miles further than any spacecraft intended to carry humans. Crews will travel on a similar trajectory aboard Artemis II in 2024, and astronauts will arrive at the Moon’s South Pole in late 2025 during the Artemis III mission. The Artemis program aims to land the first woman and the first person of color on the moon.
Orion’s journey takes about 38 days as it travels to the moon, orbits it, and returns to Earth — traveling 1.3 million miles (2.1 million kilometers). The capsule crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of San Diego on October 11.
Here’s everything you can expect before, during and after the launch.
Countdown to launch
Beginning Saturday, the launch team will hold a briefing on weather conditions and decide whether to start fuel the rocket.
If everything looks good, the team will start refueling the missile’s core stage and then continue refueling the top stage. After that, the team will replenish and replenish the liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen that disappear during refueling.
About 50 minutes before launch, the final NASA test director briefing takes place. The launch director will poll the team to make sure every station is a “go” 15 minutes before launch.
After 10 minutes and counting, everything kicks into high gear as the spacecraft and rocket go through the final steps. Much of the action takes place in the last minute, when the ground launch sequencer sends the command for the rocket flight computer’s automated launch sequencer to take over.
In the final seconds, hydrogen will burn off, starting the four RS-25 engines, resulting in booster ignition and launch at T minus zero.
Journey to the Moon
The solid rocket boosters will detach from the spacecraft about two minutes into the flight and splash into the Atlantic Ocean, while other components will be jettisoned shortly after as well. The missile’s core stage will disintegrate about eight minutes later and fall toward the Pacific Ocean, allowing Orion’s solar panels to be deployed.
Shortly after that is the trans-moon injection burn, when the ICPS increases Orion’s speed from 17,500 miles per hour (28,163 kilometers per hour) to 22,600 miles per hour (36,371 kilometers per hour) to escape the pull of gravity from the earth and going to the moon.
After this combustion, the ICPS will separate from Orion.
At around 9:45 p.m. ET, Orion will fire up its first outbound orbit correction using the European service module, which will provide the spacecraft with power, propulsion and thermal control. This maneuver will put Orion on a path to the moon.
Over the next few days after launch, Orion will venture to the moon, within 60 miles (96 kilometers) of its closest approach on day six of the journey. The service module will place Orion in distant retrograde orbit around the moon on Day 10.
Orion will also surpass the distance record of 248,654 miles (400,169 kilometers) – set by Apollo 13 in 1970 – on Day 10 when it orbits the moon. The spacecraft will reach its maximum distance of 280,000 miles (450,616 kilometers) from Earth on Sept. 23, when it ventures 40,000 miles (64,373 kilometers) beyond the moon.
This is 30,000 miles (48,280 kilometers) further than the Apollo 13 record.
Orion will make its second closest approach to the lunar surface on October 5, within a radius of 804 kilometers.
Just before they re-enter Earth’s atmosphere, the service module will separate from Orion. The spacecraft will hit the top of Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of about 25,000 miles per hour (40,233 kilometers per hour), and its heat shield will experience temperatures close to 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit (2,760 degrees Celsius).
The atmosphere will slow Orion to about 300 miles per hour (482 kilometers per hour), and a series of parachutes will slow it to less than 20 miles per hour (32 kilometers per hour) before plunging into the Pacific Ocean at 2 a.m. :10 p.m. ET on Oct. 11.
Splashdown will be streamed live from NASA’s website, featuring images from 17 cameras aboard the salvage ship and helicopters awaiting Orion’s return.
The landing and recovery team will collect the Orion capsule and determine the spacecraft’s data: the lessons learned before man returns to the moon.